Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
If you grew up in a Christian home during the last thirty years, you’re a member of an exclusive clique. You lived through McGee and Me’s tornado episode, survived a youth group game that required drinking a gallon of milk, and even weathered the Newsboys’ disco phase. Remember the day you accidentally ripped your Amy Grant poster? Some tragedies are too difficult to bear.
Christian culture possesses a unique attachment for its members, and judging by the amount of nostalgia-centric artifacts surging in popularity, we can’t seem to get enough of it. Regardless of whether those of us who grew up in the Church still count ourselves as one of the faithful, the desire to look back at our past — with either fondness or regret — never seems to disappear.
This is true of all young adults, in fact. Millennials (individuals born sometime between 1980 and 2000) account for about $1.3 trillion in direct annual spending. They also use the internet more than older generations. It’s no surprise then that we’re currently seeing an influx of products, films, and internet content geared towards helping millennials relive their youth (no doubt aided by the pop culture boom of the ‘90s and ‘00s). From Fuller House and the new Ghostbusters project, to Jimmy Fallon’s Saved by the Bell reunion and articles like “27 Struggles That Were All Too Real To ‘90s Kids” and “Nickelodeon’s 90s Kids TV Shows Ranked,” nostalgia marketing is high-tide.At this point in my life, nostalgia has become indispensable to my formation as a spiritual disciple.
Millennials who grew up attending church have a niche inside of this niche. Even if the industry can’t muster a McGee and Me Netflix series, think pieces and internet lists tailored to (once) Christian millennials aren’t exactly in the shadows. DC Talk’s Jesus Freak turned twenty last year, sparking an influx of reviews and satirical articles. Likewise, titles like “You Know You Were a ‘90s Church Kid If…” go viral on a weekly basis.
Church kids might have kissed dating goodbye, but if internet traffic is any indication, the past isn’t so easily dumped.
A few weeks ago, I laughed so hard I nearly drove into oncoming traffic. The driver behind me honked. I wanted to tell him the title track from DC Talk’s Jesus Freak (1995) was on the radio and that he could still catch the guitar solo if he acted promptly.
Jesus Freak (both the song and album) represents a watershed moment in my adolescent and spiritual development. I sang its tracks during a youth camp talent show one year (though I’m not a singer) and during a children’s church puppet show (though I’m not a puppeteer).
I saw a man with a tat on his big fat belly
It wiggled around like marmalade jelly
I don’t remember where I was driving the day Toby Mac’s lyrics joined a chorus of honking horns, but I do remember looking at the tall Texas pines and reminiscing. I thought about the year I first heard Jesus Freak. I thought about my faith then, and now, and I stopped laughing — which I’m sure the other drivers appreciated.
You see, life doesn’t always end up like we think it’ll end up when we’re ten.
It wasn’t a week earlier that I scrolled through my phone searching for a number, only to pass the contacts of four people who had died in the last 18 months, two of them family members. That’s not counting the deceased children’s pastor who let me perform “Jesus Freak” with an old, green puppet that lost one of its plastic eyes whenever I made him dance. Some of the friends I serenaded at youth camp have gone on to live rich, faith-filled lives. Others haven’t.
In some ways, nostalgia gives us confidence (or pride) in how far we’ve come. When we compare our past faith with the progress of our current selves, our chests inhale; our shoulders straighten. We’ve matured, grown.
For me, examining past relics is often as depressing as it is satisfactory. I think about how little I knew about the world, and God, during childhood and adolescence. I also think about how those same artifacts (and Christian culture) also shaped misguided theology that took years to undo. I learned about Jesus as a child but I also learned about legalism and the prosperity gospel.
It’s likewise disheartening to ponder the faith fatalities: the friends and family members who gave up on Jesus and the Church. A green tattoo of “Jesus Saves” sounds enticing, but when faith hits the real world, we need something firmer than jelly.
Last week, my Facebook newsfeed was a barrage of political posts. Some were true, some were not. Either way, they made me mad, frustrated, and sad. I scrolled down until I noticed a video shared by three friends. Jay Leno was in the cover image; it’s from 1993 when his hair was still more gray than white.
“Performing a remake of the Doobie Brother’s classic, ‘Jesus is Just Alright,’ DC Talk!” Jay says. DC Talk makes me smile once more as I watch the trio dance in an array of moving lights and baggy ‘90s pants. “Jesus is my friend” they say, just before jumping back into the chorus.
Jesus is my friend.
Nostalgia did something different to me this time. I didn’t think of suffering or spiritual disillusionment. Instead, I thought about being Jesus’ friend. Phrases like this meant something to me in 1995. It meant a closeness to Jesus. It meant trust even if what He said (and what happened in life) seemed outrageous.
The Gospel of Mark tells a story about a group of children whose parents brought them to visit Jesus. The disciples attempted to shoo the children away, which annoyed Jesus. “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” the Savior says. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).
I think people can, and have, taken these words in a number of misguided ways. They think of faith as naïve and ignorant. Just believe! Don’t think too much about it! But Jesus isn’t describing simplistic, credulous acceptance here — the totality of His ministry proves otherwise. Instead, He speaks of personal dependence and receptivity. Children have much to learn, but they certainly know how to trust — a quality even the disciples found difficult to grasp.
Just chapters before, Peter rebuked Jesus for speaking of His coming death. Peter believed Jesus could only be God if He eliminated all resistance and suffering. I can imagine the children sitting next to the Master would have just been crazy enough to trust Him — even to Peter’s dismay.
After high school, I experienced a crisis of faith. I didn’t stop believing in God and I didn’t use doubt as an excuse to wallow in the desert of spiritual indeterminacy, but I did question what I believed and why I believed it.
During this time, I realized there were two ways of looking at the past — specifically, as it pertains to Christian culture. The first way tends to view the past primarily through optimism; this stance is usually taken by the generation before me. They long for the good ol’ days when preachers taught from the Bible and choirs sang from the hymnal. The church, and America, used to be different. Morality stood for something.
While they aren’t entirely wrong, they aren’t entirely right either. Some pastors who preached from the Bible misinterpreted it, and while facets of today’s culture aren’t as moral as they once were, past morality is a pipe dream.
The second way looks at the past with what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” What were we thinking back then? The past has nothing to offer us. I find younger people tend to take this stance more than others.
Even though each group interprets history differently, they both enjoy swiveling their heads back from time to time. One wears rose-colored glasses, the other wears dark Ray-Bans that say “I’m too cool to take these off inside.”
As I traversed my own spiritual pilgrimage, I knew that neither way would provide an answer for my doubt. I couldn’t return to the faith of my youth; it didn’t exist anymore. However, completely rejecting it would leave me out in the cold, fighting a form of spiritual hypothermia.
In 2007’s A Secular Age, Charles Taylor poses this question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” The answer to this query, he goes on to argue, lies at least partly in civilization’s definition of the “self.”
In the past, society viewed the self as open and porous. Our selves (as human beings) each contains a spirit or soul that’s tuned to the supernatural. In a sense, we live under the sovereignty of powers greater than us; we must look outside our identities to the divine for meaning. Taylor argues that before the 1800s, humanity understood the limits of their mental capacity, thus predisposing them to belief in God.
Human progress, bringing with it an explosion of knowledge, changed society’s relationship with the unknowable. What was once mysterious and divine became “science.” Humanity’s understanding of personal identity transitioned to what Taylor calls the “buffered self,” namely one that’s bounded and autonomous. Relying on Taylor’s work, author and pastor Timothy Keller describes the buffered self in this way: “Because there is no transcendent, supernatural order outside of me, it is I who determine what I am and who I will be.” If the open and porous self is a computer attached to the internet, the buffered self is one seeking for meaning within its own hard drive.
Taylor’s work, which I’ve simplified here, offers a fascinating window into Christian subculture nostalgia and its effect on personal faith. Humanity’s macro journey from “open” self to “buffered” self is mirrored in our micro journey from childhood and adolescence to adulthood.
With limited knowledge and experience, we are born predisposed to looking outside of ourselves for purpose. Thus, children find it easier to accept the divine. As time passes and knowledge grows — coupled with the societal climate Taylor describes — we often find ourselves becoming “buffered.” This may cause us to resent Christian artifacts (e.g., a courtship book, a song) that either propagates or reminds us of anti-intellectualism or pseudo-biblical theology.
Without good reasons in favor of an open self, we embrace the buffered self or deconstruct what faith we did have to build a new one based on both transcendence and historical, scientific evidence. Either way, we usually come to begrudge our past.
This is why nostalgia is wildly important for millennials. Nostalgia, when interpreted correctly, pushes us toward spiritual maturity by revealing the weaknesses of the past while illuminating the underlying beauty of the porous self. So, in a sense, we need DC Talk. We need BuzzFeed to post “17 Songs Every Youth Group Kid Still Knows by Heart.” If not to keep us from deifying the past then to stop us from throwing our baby faith out with the bathwater — a story all too common for the younger generation.
At this point in my life, nostalgia has become indispensable to my formation as a spiritual disciple. Nostalgia reminds me of my religious progress but it also reveals the cynicism I’ve accumulated along the way. As a child, I was just crazy enough to believe God, even with the impossible. While Peter and the disciples later became more devoted to Christ, I’ve become quicker to not trust the words of Jesus even though I’m convinced of His existence and work in the world. I’ve become too buffered, believing my human mind can comprehend the vastness of the universe. Death, and life for that matter, hardens my skin like a laborer who’s spent years toiling in the hot sun.
Despite the qualities I wish I could change about my former self, I celebrate the pious life of my adolescence and childhood. I celebrate the Christian family who raised me with love and diligence. I celebrate Jesus Freak and the host of “WOW” albums that rotated through my Discman. And yes, I even celebrate the messy games I played in youth group. I applaud the past, hoping I can regain at least some of the faith Jesus attributes to children.
So tag me in another internet article that tells church kids how to know if they’re church kids. I may be older now but I’m still ready for God to do a Nu Thang.
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